A Whiff of Japan

During my recent visit to Japan I had the good fortune to visit Yamada Matsu in Kyoto, and Tenkundo in Kamakura. At Yamada Matsu Ms. Yuka Kawahara, who speaks English, assembled a beautiful, traditional Kodo cup and generously burned a few different pieces of green kyara for my enjoyment and education. I had expected all of the green kyara pieces to smell the same but there was a lot of variation. In general, what seemed to distinguish green kyara to my untrained nose was that each piece contained a full spectrum of scents that ranged from bitter to sweet (although some amplified one end of the spectrum more than the other). The most interesting piece, because it was the most unexpected, was very acidic- it had a sharp, fizzy and very penetrating smell. All of the green kyara pieces were stronger than the subsequent yellow and white pieces that Ms. Kawahara kindly burned. The white and yellow kyara projected less and smelled somewhat thinner and less complex.

I wish I had more time to pay attention to the many beautiful and interesting pieces of agarwood displayed in Yamada Matsu’s glass cases, as well as the handsome incense burners and sandalwood carvings, and the huge variety of sticks and chips that were available to purchase. I was so transfixed by the uplifting, luminous, sublime and soothing scent of burning kyara that I didn’t realize how quickly time was passing and I had to rush away to a previously scheduled appointment.

At Tenkundo, which I located by following the scent of incense that enticingly drifts into the narrow street, the owner, Mr. Suda, escorted me upstairs to an elegant room that was the epitome of the refined Japanese aesthetic. He generously burned pieces of green, purple and black kyara for me to sample. I felt very relaxed and calm during the session, although I was disturbed to hear Mr. Suda’s confirmation that kyara and agarwood are becoming increasingly scarce. Tenkundo is an offshoot of Nippon Kodo, which has a very strong presence in the Chinese market. Mr. Suda brought out a carefully wrapped piece of agarwood that amazed me- it was longer and thicker than a man’s forearm! A Chinese buyer had just purchased it, for carving, for a very hefty sum. At the end of my visit Mr. Suda showed me a small lacquer container inlaid with mother of pearl that is used to store pieces of agarwood for use during the tea ceremony. If only the exchange rate had been more favorable…

Before I left for Japan I had written to a number of incense stores asking if kyara was available to purchase. Most of my queries were not answered, and the couple of stores that did reply, using Google Translate, said they were out of stock. I would strongly suggest to anyone who plans to visit Japan on an incense quest that, if possible, they engage the help of a translator. There were so many questions I wanted to ask but my inability to speak Japanese prevented me from taking full advantage of the wealth of knowledge I’m sure my hosts would have gladly shared.

Incense sticks are burned in huge burners at some of the temple entrances. It is traditional to light individual sticks or bundles of incense, which are sold along with good luck charms and fortunes at small stalls at the temple entrance, and to place them in the ash-filled burner, after which smoke is waved towards one’s body and/or rubbed into one’s clothes for purification and health purposes. Most of the sticks smelled like a combination of sandalwood and agarwood; at some of the temples the scent was woodier, at others sweeter and at others it had a spicier, more herbal scent. The scent of incense added to the feeling of calmness and tranquility that pervaded the atmosphere regardless of how many worshipers and visitors were present.

Coiled incense (I recognized boxes of Shoyeido’s Tenpyo) was sold at a couple of the temples and very large pieces of agarwood were on display and for sale at Kinokoku-ji, the Golden Pavilion (or maybe that was at Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, where there are 2 rooms that were used as incense chambers). Most of the temples sell incense that has the name of the temple printed on the packaging but the temple does not make it.

There are many small stores that specialize in incense and many offer incense appreciation classes on a regular schedule, although I don’t know if any classes are conducted in English. Both Shoyeido and Baiedo offer factory tours, by appointment. Kyukyudo had a large selection of sticks and fragrant woods, however, once again my inability to speak Japanese made it extremely difficult to get information and make purchases.

I wasn’t able to visit as many incense shops as I would have liked, however Ms. Kawahara and Mr. Suda were extremely kind and generous, and experiencing the entrancing scent of kyara with such gracious hosts are experiences I will always treasure.

New from Mermade

Recently got a box of samples from Mermade, which is always a treat. There was a selection of some of the new frankincense’s that have come in as well as some new blends.

Light Green Frankincense: This one has a really nice lemony scent to it, very clean, slightly sweet and very good. It has been awhile since anything of this caliber has been on the market in the US, nice to have it back.

Green Frankincense – Superior/Oman: Stunning, clear, almost glass like, green tear drops that, when heated produce a beautiful lime scent. Have never smelled any resin like this one before and consider it one of the best frankincense’s ever.

Black Frankincense, Boswellia Sacra: This one is unique, it has an distinct orange scent with a hint of orange flower mixed in that really caught my attention as, like the Green Frankincense above, it is unique in my incense experience. This one opens up a lot of possibilities for blends and also it is simply wonderful by itself.

Mephisto: This blend has many of my favorite materials in it, of which the labdanum really stands out. The blend overall has a very deep and somewhat dark presence (thus the name) yet at the same time it is also very well thought out with no harsh or jarring notes. This is one of those incenses that seemed to have required a bit of time to mature and is worth the wait. This looks to be in somewhat limited supply.

Dream Snake 2012: Dream Snake has been around for some time now , I think this may be the best one of the run. I would not consider this as something to use as a casual scent, rather it is to be approached with a grounded and focused intent. I see this blend as incense in the classic Temple or Oracle style, something to be experienced and treasured. Perhaps something to be used as a tool then for entertainment. That said, it does seem to have some very relaxing qualities to it and is rather fun to use before bed time

Forest Amber: This blend is a huge green forest note riding on an amber base and is quite spectacular. The two aspects work very well together and make for a great room scent, one that will work for quite a lot of people. A great room scent, one that would be welcome in a home setting as well as a studio or gallery.

-Enjoy… Ross

Pure Incense / Amber & Rose, Frankincense & Rose, Parijata, Pavitra Vastu, Saffron & Rose, Yellow Rose

It has been a while since I sampled any new Pure Incense scents after reviewing most of their range in the last few years, so was pleased to receive some samples in the mail, although without much in the way of explanation, I’ve had to put two and two together from looking at their revamped product line. Almost all of the samples came labelled, but at least half of them weren’t tagged as Connoisseur, Absolute, Premium or Classic. It seems  that almost everything I was sent is part of their Premium range, which I assume is just the revamped Absolute range. At the same time I received a sample of Yellow Rose but can’t find it anywhere on the site.

Anyway if you’re new to Pure Incense, I’d recommend looking here for previous reviews and to try some of their long standing catalog before trying most of these, many of which are hybrids of other scents. For those that don’t know, in many ways Pure Incense is like the United Kingdom outlet of the Madhavadas family, in the same way Primo is in the United States, however unlike Primo, Pure Incense extends the Madhavadas line into Connoissuer levels, and many of these like Blue Lotus, Nepal Musk and Agarwood are well loved at ORS. The theme common to most Madhavadas incenses is their base mix of charcoal, vanilla and sandalwood. In many cases the vanilla is strong enough to be part of the bouquet of their scents and so it’s good to know if you like the style early. Fortunately the company is a master at this type of incense, often using very high quality perfumes for maximum enjoyment.

We’ll start with the Amber & Rose which is largely a variant of Pure Incense’s Connoissuer Rose. The amber in this case reduces the heaviness of the floral oil, which also brings the vanilla/sandal base to the fore. You can sense the line’s actual amber in the background, largely because the floral perfumes drown a bit of it out. Overall it’s hard not to like this one, it’s familiar in its elements but other than wishing the amber was a touch stronger, the merging is quite well done: soft, pink and pretty.

The rose element in the Frankincense & Rose is much more subdued to the frankincense and acts to give it a subnote rather than the 50/50 hybrids you usually see from Pure Incense. This is a neat trick as the florals touch the citrus notes of the frankincense a bit more than you usually find in Indian incense. The main issue is this is still very close to the regular frankincense that you might not need both, but given this caveat, I’d go with this one as it’s more complex.

The Parijata is a somewhat generic fruity flora, with quite a sandalwood presence. It delivers a light, powdery and floral pink type of aroma without any particular element standing out. It’s interesting because I remember trying both the Absolute and Connoisseur versions of this previously and thinkings they were quite good, so I was surprised to be a bit lukewarm here. Anyway you’re probably safer with my original review – this sample did say it was Connoissuer but I remember that stick being much better.

Newcomer Pavitra Vastu is a spicy and herbal evergreen incense with a pleasant green scent mixed with a noticeable woodiness. This has some similarities to Shroff’s Amir, a certain saltiness in particular drew my attention to the comparison. It has more of a juniper needle and cedar oil note in front that is very nice. Overall a very masculine, Jupiterian type of incense and one I’d love to try more of.

The Saffron & Rose (labelled Connoisseur if my memory is correct), like other incenses with this mix, comes off somewhat furniture polish-like to my nose. The floral perfume is modified in a way that brings out the lemon or citrus qualities a bit too much. The rose character without the mix is a lot more identifiable (if not totally authentic due to expense). There’s a bit of a saffron note, but it’s not really in the right spot. Perhaps it’s just personal taste with this, but of all the samples I received, this came with the largest supply and over the batch it ended up wearing me out more often than not.

I’m not sure if Yellow Rose has been discontinued, but I couldn’t locate it at the web site. It’s a typical charcoal rose with its incumbent harshness, at least the aroma mixed with vanilla is quite nice, the sort of soft and gentle floral you tend to get from yellow roses. I also got an amber, which I had review before, but even though it struck me as slightly different I’m not quite sure which product I’m looking at.

Anyway I’m still glad Pure Incense is with us, they’ve always been a class act with great incense and beautiful packaging and if you haven’t tried them yet, I recommend checking out a sampler or two.